Telecommunications Act of 1996

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 is a United States federal law enacted by the 104th United States Congress on January 3, 1996, and signed into law on February 8, 1996 by President Bill Clinton. It primarily amended Chapter 5 of Title 47 of the United States Code. The act was the first significant overhaul of United States telecommunications law in more than sixty years, amending the Communications Act of 1934, and represented a major change in that law, because it was the first time that the Internet was added to American regulation of broadcasting and telephony.[1]

Telecommunications Act of 1996
Great Seal of the United States
Other short titlesCommunications Decency Act of 1996
Long titleAn Act to promote competition and reduce regulation in order to secure lower prices and higher quality services for American telecommunications consumers and encourage the rapid development of new telecommunications technologies.
NicknamesCommunications Act of 1995
Enacted bythe 104th United States Congress
EffectiveFebruary 8, 1996
Public law104-104
Statutes at Large110 Stat. 56
Acts amendedCommunications Act of 1934
Titles amended47 U.S.C.: Telegraphy
U.S.C. sections amended
Legislative history
United States Supreme Court cases

The primary goal of the law was to "let anyone enter any communications business – to let any communications business compete in any market against any other."[2] Thus, the statute is often described as an attempt to deregulate the American broadcasting and telecommunications markets due to technological convergence.[3]

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 has been praised for incentivizing the expansion of networks and the offering of new services across the United States,[4] though it is often criticized for enabling market concentration in the media and telecommunications industries.[5][6]

Background edit

Development edit

Previously, the Communications Act of 1934 was the statutory framework for American communications policy, covering telephony, broadcasting, and (via later amendments) cable television.[7] The 1934 Act created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC),[7] the agency assigned to implement and administer the economic regulation of the interstate activities of telephone companies (then dominated by the AT&T monopoly) and the licensing of spectrum used for broadcasting and other purposes.[8]

Starting in the 1970s, a combination of technological change, court decisions, and updates to American policy goals enabled competitive entry by new companies into some telecommunications and broadcasting markets. In this context, the 1996 Telecommunications Act was designed to allow smaller companies to enter those markets and for existing companies to operate across market sectors, via the relaxation of cross-ownership rules, multi-sector prohibitions, and other barriers to entry.[9] One specific provision empowered the FCC to preempt all attempts by state or local governments to prevent telecommunications competition.[10]

A report by the House of Representatives stated that the goal of the new legislation was to "provide for a pro-competitive, de-regulatory national policy framework designed to accelerate rapidly private sector deployment of advanced information technologies and services to all Americans by opening all telecommunications markets to competition".[11]

New policy developments edit

One purpose of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was to foster competition among companies willing to provide multiple communications services (such as voice calls and Internet connectivity) within network technologies that has previously been confined by law to one type of service. Therefore, the act created precise regulatory regimes based on type of network architecture, with companies subjected to different regulations depending on whether they operated in telephone, cable television, or Internet networks.[4] The act makes a significant distinction between providers of telecommunications services and information services, with the different regulations to be followed by companies in each sector leading to confusion when those sectors technologically converged in later years.[12]

In order to enable competition, the 1996 Act required incumbent telecommunications companies to interconnect their networks with new competing companies,[13] and to provide wholesale access to materials and components as those smaller companies build their networks.[14] The act also clarified intercarrier compensation rates for communications requests that are handled by multiple firms.[15][16] Regional Bell Operating Companies, who were previously subjected to strict regulations to provide only local telephone service, were allowed to enter the long-distance market.[17]

The 1996 Act also introduced more precise and detailed regulations for the funding of universal service programs via subsidies generated by monthly customer fees. This was intended to reduce the tendency of smaller telephone firms to charge above-market rates for underserved users, and to provide more transparency of fees charged to customers.[18][19] However, universal service subsidies were only used to build landline telephone networks until the early 2010s.[20]

In the media and broadcasting sector, most media ownership regulations were eased, and the cap on radio station ownership was eliminated.[21] The act also attempted to prohibit indecency and obscenity on the Internet, via a section that was separately titled as the Communications Decency Act, though most of this section was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court for violating the First Amendment.[22][23] Portions of Title V remain, including Section 230, which shields Internet firms from liability for the speech of their users, and has been widely credited for enabling the growth of the Internet and social media.[24][25]

Opposition edit

Early criticism edit

Some smaller telecommunications companies and consumer groups stated their opposition to the new statute during Congressional hearings. For example, smaller firms predicted that they would experience difficulty in competing financially even if they faced fewer barriers to entry, and this would result in market consolidation in favor of incumbent firms.[26] This prediction was correct, and by 2001 concentration of the American telephone market had increased with four major companies owning 85% of all network infrastructure, rather than the increased competition that the act intended.[27] Critics warned that the same would happen in the media content industry.[28]

Consumer activist Ralph Nader argued that the act was an example of corporate welfare spawned by political corruption, because it gave away to incumbent broadcasters valuable licenses for digital broadcasting frequencies on the public airwaves.[29] The act was also unpopular with early Internet activists, and was named specifically in the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace as an act "which repudiates your own [American] Constitution and insults the dreams of Jefferson, Washington, Mill, Madison, DeToqueville, and Brandeis."[30]

On the other hand, a Brookings Institution study concluded that the act incentivized upgrades to telecommunications infrastructure and new construction, despite increased industry concentration. In the long term, this helped to spread broadband access to more of the country.[4]

Later criticism edit

Critics have maintained that many of the purported goals of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 did not come to fruition in the years and decades after its passage. The act's structure of regulations based on type of network infrastructure failed to predict technological convergence and created awkward regulatory burdens for companies operating in multiple segments of media and telecommunications markets. This may prohibit innovation or make the law unable to handle evolving market conditions.[31] The law also fails to provide a guideline for regulating previously separate network technologies that have since converged (e.g. voice calls can now be delivered over Internet networks via services like VoIP).[32] According to some critics, this situation has in fact created re-regulation of the marketplace with contradictory and inconsistent rules for companies to follow.[6]

Critics have also claimed that the act has failed to enable the competition that was one of its stated goals. Instead, it may have inadvertently exacerbated the ongoing consolidation of the media marketplace that had commenced in the decades before the act's passage. The number of American major media content companies shrank from about fifty in 1983 to ten in 1996,[28] and to just six in 2005.[33] An FCC study found that the act led to a drastic decline in the number of radio station owners, even as the actual number of stations in the United States increased.[34] This decline in owners and increase in stations has resulted in radio homogenization, in which local programming and content has been lost[35] and content is repeated regardless of location.[36] Activists and critics have cited similar effects in the television industry.[37]

In the 2003 edition of his book A People's History of the United States, socialist historian Howard Zinn named the act as a significant factor in the loss of alternative and community media, and possibly the loss of public control of information:

the Telecommunications Act of 1996...enabled the handful of corporations dominating the airwaves to expand their power further. Mergers enabled tighter control of information...The Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano commented..."Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few."[38]

There have been attempts by the United States Congress to update the 1996 Telecommunications Act or address some of its shortcomings, such as the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Bill of 2006 and Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006, but neither became law.

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ The Telecommunications Act of 1996. Title 3, sec. 301. Retrieved from Archived 2005-01-19 at the Wayback Machine (2011)
  2. ^ The Telecomm Act. (2008) para. 1. Retrieved from
  3. ^ Miller, Vincent (2011). Understanding Digital Culture. London: SAGE Publications. p. 77. ISBN 9781847874979.
  4. ^ a b c "Was the 1996 Telecommunications Act successful in promoting competition?". Brookings. Retrieved 2024-01-16.
  5. ^ Sirota, Warren J.. "The Telecommunications Act of 1996: A Commentary on What Is Really Going on Here." Westchester Alliance For Telecommunications & Public Access. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2017. <>.[dead link]
  6. ^ a b "Against a National Broadband Policy". 2007-12-19. Archived from the original on 2011-10-29.
  7. ^ a b "Will the Telecommunications Act get a much-needed update as it turns 21?". Vox. 2017-02-08. Retrieved 2019-10-08.
  8. ^ From History of Wire and Broadcast Communication, FCC (May 1993)
  9. ^ Guy Lamolinara, Wired for the Future: President Clinton Signs Telecom Act at LC, Library of Congress, (accessed November 13, 2008)
  10. ^ 47 U.S.C. § 253.
  11. ^ Conference Report, Telecommunications Act of 1996, House of Representatives, 104th Congress, 2d Session, H.Rept. 104-458, at p. 1.
  12. ^ Frieden, Rob (2006). "What Do Pizza Delivery and Information Services Have in Common - Lessons from Recent Judicial and Regulatory Struggles with Convergence". Rutgers Computer & Technology Law Journal. 32 (2): 247–296 – via HeinOnline.
  13. ^ 47 U.S.C. § 252.
  14. ^ 47 U.S.C. §§ 251(c)(3) and 252(d)(1).
  15. ^ For a detailed discussion of intercarrier compensation, see CRS Report RL32889, Intercarrier Compensation: One Component of Telecom Reform, by Charles B. Goldfarb.
  16. ^ 47 U.S.C. § 252(d)(2)(A).
  17. ^ FCC Report on Telecommunications Bill of 1996
  18. ^ 47 U.S.C. § 254(e).
  19. ^ page CRS-13.
  20. ^ quoting CRS Report
  21. ^ Weaver, Dustin (2016-02-07). "Bill Clinton's telecom law: Twenty years later". TheHill. Retrieved 2019-10-08.
  22. ^ "CNN - Supreme Court rules CDA unconstitutional - June 26, 1997". Retrieved 2019-10-08.
  23. ^ "Text of the Decision Throwing Out the Communications Decency Act". Retrieved 2019-10-08.
  24. ^ Grossman, Wendy M. "The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet, book review: The biography of a law". ZDNet. Archived from the original on January 12, 2021. Retrieved 2020-09-04.
  25. ^ "Trump's Executive Order: What to Know About Section 230". Council on Foreign Relations. Archived from the original on November 20, 2020. Retrieved 2020-09-04.
  26. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 November 2006. Retrieved 22 May 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  27. ^ Lessons from the 1996 Telecommunications Act
  28. ^ a b
  29. ^ "Nader's Testimony on Corporate Welfare". 2003-11-18. Archived from the original on 2012-02-04.
  30. ^ "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace".
  31. ^ pp. 13-14
  32. ^ CRS Report
  33. ^ Bagdikian, B. "Media Monopoly."
  34. ^ "FCC report on negative impacts of media consolidation" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-10-09. Retrieved 2007-10-08.
  35. ^ Polgreen, Lydia (1 Apr 1999). "The Death of 'Local Radio'". Washington Monthly: 9.
  36. ^ Tiller, Joseph. "How the Telecom Act of 1996 impacted Hip-Hop". Retrieved 4 April 2019.
  37. ^ Kaufman, Ron. "Kill Your Television--1996 Telecom Act." Kill Your Television N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2012. < Archived 2012-06-11 at the Wayback Machine>.
  38. ^ Zinn, Howard. A people's history of the United States: 1492-present. [New ed.] New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.

Federal documents

External links edit